On academic labour, and reclaiming academic time and space

On Friday 15 June, I attended a University of Nottingham, UCU-branch-sponsored symposium on the public university. These are my notes. 

Quiet down
(We are the dollars and cents and the pounds and pence)
(And the mark and the yen and yeah, we’re going to)
Why don’t you quiet down?
(Crack your little souls, we’re going to crack your little souls)

[Radiohead. 2001. Dollars and Cents.] 

What is the relationship between the idealised neoliberal subject and academic labour? How is academic labour being recalibrated as the idealised neoliberal subject? If we are in transition to the neoliberal university, what are the possibilities for academic labour?

The idealised neoliberal subject is legitimised around specific, commodified practices that are toxic to her subjectivity, in-part through the disciplinary and enclosing nature of those practices. The REF is an example of a process of judgement and ranking with which academics collude, and that forecloses and excludes, and that further enables academic solidarity to be ruptured and restructured. It is the processing and revelation of our otherness. It is the real subsumption of our academic subjectivity inside a commodified reality. It highlights lines of exclusion which teach us that our assimilation is the denial of our subjectivity, and that if we refuse or dissent then we are to be systematically judged. These positions, of engagement, refusal, denial and passivity, are deeply political.

As academics internalise certain logics, in taking money for R&D or implementing processes for monitoring students or in co-ordinating the REF or agitating over student satisfaction scores or in workload planning, it is important to recognise that acts of refusal or dissent mean that the business of new public management now grafted into the university cannot go back to normal. It is important to recognise the place of critical pedagogy in this process of dissent towards otherness or othering, and in developing subjectivity. It is in the messy realities of pedagogy and education as process that the speed of enclosure and capture might be reduced, and spaces for refusal opened up.

As a result of refusal we might reclaim the possibilities of care and caring inside the University. Academics care about their positions and their research and their students, and one outcome is that they and their practices are ripe for being parasitised by techniques and technologies of new public management, which seeks to extract surplus value through agendas that enhance productivity, efficiency, choice and outcomes. Academic time and energy can be co-opted for the development and implementation of such technologies and techniques precisely because academics care about their students and their work, and will dedicate their own time to those projects, beyond their formal working arrangements. This is the trap of the social factory, and it witnesses the constraints for academics of a life shackled to cognitive capitalism inside the fluid structures of higher education.

This issue is important for academics as individual universities adapt to the new normal of funding and regulation and governance models. The response of the government to the HE White Paper consultation demonstrated its political weakness; its inability to get primary legislation on the statute books relating to the privatised provision of HE. Privatisation of English higher education was slowed, although privatisation in English universities is speeding up. In this space which is fed by competing agendas at different speeds what might academics do to recover some agency? Might slow scholarship, which increases the circulation time for the commodities of cognition, be one possible focus for dissent and pushing back? What lessons might we learn from the Luddites’ coherent fight over time, temporality and speed in the annihilation of their livelihoods/lives/subjectivity?

These examples are important because the University is focused on the adaptive upgrading of academic jobs. Of re-stratifying academic labour under new forms of status, engineered by a technocracy that feeds inequality through access to research-allowances or teaching time or student numbers. This is painful because it is transitional. It is a transitional move towards the neoliberal university; a space that is a new site for the extraction of value; a space that is being restructured in the name of capital; a space that limits freedom-of-expression and academic autonomy where it conflicts with value creation. The stereotypical neoliberal university will be a bond-funded, joint venture, either hedged or speculated against, with the use of private equity via spin-off companies, with a need to maintain its global credit rating through reduced staff costs, where the interplay between its fees and ratings are interpreted through analytics, and where those interpretations are ways of disciplining academic labour and discrediting critical pedagogy in the name of pedagogies like constructivism that are co-opted for neoliberalism.

The debts and covenants that emerge from the new public management of funding the University are both pedagogic and disciplinary. As debt to income ratios rise, and as investment-grade bonds are demanded in an increasingly volatile higher education market, where there are doubts about the ability of certain students or groups of students to repay loans, or where there are doubts about the economic viability of certain programmes-of-study, the control of social or human capital becomes imperative. As the attrition on wages, offset in part through increased debt/credit levels, continues, and as value is further extracted from social goods, the individuated value of education becomes a site of struggle. The fee regime and its enclosure of possible futures beyond the rate of profit forms a disciplinary technique. It is in this space that we might argue for the public university: how do universities benefit our public? How should a public university be regulated or funded or owned?

In answering those questions we might try to analyse the neoliberal logics of:

  • new public management (risk-management, internal competition between cost centres, efficiency drives through the use of private corporations that are embedded inside universities etc.);

  • comparative competitiveness (internationalisation agendas, franchising, R&D outcomes, employing magnet academics, responses to the WTO and GATS); and

  • competitive comparison (rankings and indices).

In these logics we see flows of finance and human capital, and universities themselves are revealed as competitive capitals. Through them we illuminate ways in which academic labour might disrupt the cycles and circuits of those capitals. In part this comes as they react to the marketisation of HE and the privatisation of universities, which in turn co-opts temporality and scale to lever performance-management, and through it acceptance or shame. Yet any disruption needs to be developed at a range of scales because capital is parasitic on the university: in think-tanks; through technology and related services; in corporate social responsibility agendas that are educational; in credit ratings agencies; in private equity and financing; in regional and national regulation. In each of these spaces there are different mechanisms through which capital recalibrates the University for value creation, profit and further accumulation.

As education becomes a positional, individuated, competitive good, and as the stakes for individuals rise, we might ask whether we can develop strong answers to the strong questions that are being asked about the purpose of the University. Can we develop alternative narratives based on societal goods? Can we look to Chile or Quebec for some possible alternatives to these practices? Can we analyse how BPP/Apollo, or Pearson or Kaplan or McGraw Hill are leveraging their own market capitalisation to crack the university? Can we analyse how those corporations are using their established infrastructures and content to extract data/analytics about behaviours that might then be commodified as services for students? Is it possible to reconfigure universities under a general public license or as a co-operative form? Or can this only be achieved beyond the university?

In this process, time is important. Capital seeks to annihilate the space between commodities and consumers by reducing the time it takes to produce and/or circulate goods. As bond-funded initiatives, or private equity leveraged against future loan incomes, are based on 30/40 year life-cycles, there is a demand to reduce volatility and risk, and variations in behaviour, and to control time. So capital wishes to fund programmes that enhance the ability of students to get jobs and pay down their debts, or institutions that can innovate in order to pay down their debts and covenants. Time and variations in behaviour are a risk, especially where they relate to asset illiquidity. Thus the state wishes to control resource allocation and budgeting, in order that it can reduce volatility/risk/defaults, and thereby create a set of spaces in which capital can grow.

In this process temporality is important. Internationalisation, rankings, social mobility are all agendas that tend towards offshoring or the virtualisation of the University. They are parasitical of local needs, feeding off spaces rather than learning with them. They prioritise jobs and mobility away from certain spaces, above justice and access. They do little to reclaim a University’s local identity. They are levers for catalysing the market mechanism that systematises competition, and which detaches academic elites from temporal space. They are transnational and have the same damaging effects on local priorities as transitional financial elites. At issue is how might academics fight for their local, temporal space? Or inside-and-against the university, is there no alternative?

Thus, as public universities are realigned with the values of the market, which sees an aggregation of individuals providing all necessary regulation, funding and governance, we might ask how can more dialogical and collective forms of higher learning be fought for? What might we do in our militant research strategies and in public to strengthen democratic engagement and critiques of new public management? Do we stay and fight for the academic project inside the university, to forge something that is beyond? Do we argue for new forms of governance and funding and regulation in the name of the public? How do we provide strong answers that push back against the violent recalibration of university life and academic labour, and which might reclaim academic time and space?

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

[Schlitz, D. 1978. The Gambler.]


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